CITY-TV re Speakers Corner

ONTARIO REGIONAL COUNCIL
(CBSC Decision 97/98-0572)
A. MacKay (Chair), R. Stanbury (Vice-Chair), R. Cohen (ad hoc), P. Fockler,M. Hogarth and M. Ziniak

THE FACTS

Speakers Corner is a program created by CITY-TV (Toronto) to
provide members of the general public with a form of “access” to the broadcast
airwaves. By providing a camera located outside CITY-TV’s studio in downtown Toronto,
CITY-TV enables people wishing to express a point of view on most any subject which moves
them to tape a statement which can then, at the discretion of CITY-TV, be broadcast to the
public. It constitutes a modern day “town square” or Hyde Park Corner of sorts.
On January 15, 1998 at 11:30 p.m., Speakers Corner contained comments regarding
“politics”. Many comments related to the Ontario government’s labour and
welfare policies. The comments relating to assistance for persons with disabilities, which
were the only ones which gave rise to a complaint, were as follows:

Speaker #1:

I work for the Big Three and I have had the unfortunate situation ofbeing an injured worker. I’ve been on Workman’s Compensation. I’m a hardworking man. I enjoy working. … I’ve collected compensation for nearly two yearsand it saved me. It saved me from bankruptcy. It saved my family. It fed my family. I didnot abuse it.

… [The clip was shown in two separate parts.]

It saved my butt and I’m not ashamed of being on it. … I wishyou could be in my place someday and know what it feels like.

Speaker #2:

Hi, I just wanted to talk about this whole Christmas thing. I’mhere with my [broadcaster edit] and uh, she’s a real left wing and I’m a rightwing and I think Mike Harris is the greatest person, greatest politician we ever had. Ithink he’s doing good things for our province. She totally disagrees. Now, I’m23 years old. I’ve been working since I was, like, 12 years old. I’ve always hada job. I had two jobs most summers. I think there’s nothing wrong with working andshe seems to disagree with that. She thinks that people should be able to just sit aroundand do nothing. She’s been collecting welfare because her bowels don’t workproperly and I think that’s a pretty bad excuse.

… [The clip was shown in two separate parts.]

I don’t think that people should be able to, should be forced topay money to other people who just sit around and collect disability, for such things astheir bowels don’t work.

On January 28, 1998, a viewer wrote a letter of complaint to the CRTC
which in turn forwarded it to the CBSC. The letter read as follows:

Please be advised that I wish tomake a complaint against City TV in Toronto for airing a segment on “SpeakersCorner” on Thursday, Jan 15, 1998 at 11:30 p.m. approximately. The segment referredto me and described my disability and circumstances surrounding my disability intending inmy opinion to harm, shock, and discriminate. The person making the allegations was amember of my family who was and is unaware of my circumstances.

I have been advised legally that the segment aired constitutesdefamation of character and is a breach of the Broadcast Standards Act. Since I am unableto get Legal Aid at the present time in Ontario for such cases, I have been advised by theAdvocacy Resource Centre for the Handicapped in Toronto, to file a serious complaint withthe CRTC that the segment aired discriminates against me and people with disabilities. Iwish you to apply the maximum penalty possible under the Act.

On March 2, 1998, CITY-TV’s Producer and Director of Speakers
Corner
responded to the complainant with the following:

I am responding to the complaintwhich you filed with the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council regarding a segment ofSpeakers Corner which was telecast in January 1998. You initially contacted me during theweek of January twelfth, saying that you believed you had been defamed on SpeakersCorner. During our conversation, you acknowledged that you had not seen the segmentwhich was the subject of your complaint. In your letter to the Canadian BroadcastStandards Council you have repeated the allegations, which leads me to believe that youstill have not seen the item.

As I told you previously, the individual on the segment, whom youallege is a family member, does not identify himself on the broadcast. The segment wasedited prior to broadcast, and consequently, there is no specific reference to yourself orany other person. Contrary to your belief, the segment does not “discriminateagainst” you, or (discriminate against) “people with disabilities”.

The segment deplores welfare abuse and applauds the Harrisgovernment’s stricter benefit policies. The speaker says “…I think that MikeHarris is the greatest person… I don’t think that people should be able to – shouldbe forced to pay money to other people who just sit around…”. There is no referenceto disabled people in general.

The segment is in the context of a discussion about Ontario provincialpolicy. It is a counterpoint to an adjacent segment by a person who deplores cutbacks toworkman’s compensation benefits, and asserts that the current system is working well,in fact saving lives and families.

With your letter of complaint, you appended an extract of CRTCpolicies. You suggested that the speaker uttered profanities, and that his commentsexposed a group of individuals to hatred. In light of the actual content of the segment,we believe that you are mistaken.

It is never the intention of Speakers Corner to harm anyone orany group, but rather to give a voice on television to individuals who wish to expresstheir opinions. You are most welcome to take advantage of this public soapbox to expressyour views on any topic, including Ontario Government policies. I would be happy toguarantee you a place on the show if you wish to express your views regarding the statusor treatment of people with disabilities.

Citytv also provides daily access for viewers to express their opinionson matters of public concern. In addition to Speakers Corner, you may phone, fax, or writeto City Online, which is seen weekdays at 12:35 p.m. In that regard, perhaps you will wishto provide comment on government policies relating to welfare or assistance to thedisabled.

The complainant was unsatisfied with the broadcaster’s response
and requested, on March 6, 1998, that the CBSC refer the matter to the appropriate
Regional Council for adjudication. With her request, the complainant added the following
note:

Pfr [sic] my phone call to you today, I am not satisfied with the above broadcaster’s response. Please note the following:

I have been advised that legally what occurred constitutes defamation of character and a breach of the Broadcast Standards Act.

I cannot get legal aid to pursue this matter through the courts.

When I contacted City T.V. they refused to allow me to view the tapes unless I had a court order to do so plus a fee of $45.00. They also advised me that the segment did refer to a “family member namely the speaker’s aunt.” There was also reference to my disability and disabilities in general.

I will seek political action if this is not resolved to my satisfaction and the satisfaction of the Advocacy Resource Centre for the Handicapped.

THE DECISION

The CBSC’s Ontario Regional Council considered the complaint under
Clauses 2 and 6 of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics.
The relevant portions of the texts of these clauses read as follows:

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 2 (Human Rights)

Recognizing that every person has
a right to full and equal recognition and to enjoy certain fundamental rights and
freedoms, broadcasters shall endeavour to ensure, to the best of their ability, that their
programming contains no abusive or discriminatory material or comment which is based on
matters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, marital status or
physical or mental handicap.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 6, Paragraph 3

It is recognized that the full,
fair and proper presentation of news, opinion, comment and editorial is the prime and
fundamental responsibility of the broadcast publisher.

The Regional Council members viewed a tape of the program in question
and reviewed all of the correspondence. The Council considers that the program in question
does not violate either of the above-noted provisions.

Freedom of Speech and Socio-Political Commentary

The Council will review the reasons for underscoring the importance of
ensuring the broadest scope for that speech which is socio-political in nature,
whether critical or laudatory of governmental, political, public, educational or other
institutions which impact on the daily lives of the public. Before doing so, however, the
Regional Council considers it wise to re-examine briefly its long-standing principles on
the question of alleged violations by broadcasters of the human rights provision of its Code
of Ethics
. It is, after all, important for the CBSC to reiterate, from relevant
decision to decision, since the complainants and broadcasters differ from case to case,
that it is not any reference to “race, national or ethnic origin, religion,
age, sex, [sexual orientation], marital status or physical or mental handicap” which
will be sanctioned under the ‘human rights’ provision of the CAB Code of
Ethics
. It is rather only those references which are considered by the Council to be abusively
discriminatory
. The rationale underlying this principle was clearly reviewed most
recently in CFUN-AM re The John and JJ Show (Immigration Policy) (CBSC Decision
97/98-0422, May 20, 1998):

It could not be every instance of
discriminatory comment which would be found to be in breach of the “human
rights” provision of the CAB Code of Ethics for, in a technical sense, every
statement regarding an identifiable group is discriminatory. As this Council put
the point in CFTO-TV re “Tom Clark’s Canada” (CBSC Decision
97/98-0009, February 26, 1998):

Early on, the Council recognized that Clause 2 of the
CAB Code of Ethics requires a weighing of competing values. In CHTZ-FM re the
Morning Show
(CBSC Decision 92/93-0148, October 26, 1993) the Council noted that
“it must balance the right of audiences to receive programming which is free of
abusive or discriminatory material … with the fundamental right of free speech in
Canadian society.” The application of this balancing act in various CBSC decisions
evolved into an “abusiveness criteria”; i.e. the establishment of a
“test” whereby a comment must not merely be discriminatory to constitute
a breach of Clause 2, it must be abusively so.

The Council does not, in the circumstances of this case, consider that
the comments made by the second speaker can be considered abusively discriminatory vis-à-vis
persons with a physical handicap. In the first place, they are not reflective of persons with
physical handicaps at all. The context of the Speakers Corner in question related
to access to social programs and not to physical handicap. The critical comments of
the second speaker were focussed on his belief that persons without legitimate
qualifying ailments should not be able to access those public funds.

Moreover, in the CFUN decision referred to above, the B.C.
Regional Council also commented on the extent of freedom of expression as it relates to
socio-political commentary. Those comments which are most relevant to this case are as
follows:

… The Council notes that, while
freedom of expression has its limits in Canada, the freedom to criticize Government
policies and practices is a core example of freedom of expression, in some senses the very
root of that right in a democratic system. Unless, therefore, the exploiter of that
right to challenge Government policies has overstepped another equally basic standard,
such as, for example, the right of members of an identifiable group to be free from abuse,
that right to challenge will be sustained. In this case, the Council finds that the
exercise of their freedom of expression by the hosts, John and JJ, must outweigh any
danger, as suggested by the complainant, that the references “cast suspicion on all
immigrants.”

In the circumstances, the Ontario Regional Council considers that the
criticism by one of the “speakers” of “persons who just sit around and
collect disability” was made, not about persons with physical disabilities but about
the benefits of publicly-funded programs. The broadcaster had also taken the trouble to
provide the public with two, not one, comments on that subject. The Council has no
hesitation in concluding that the challenged comments should not be sanctioned pursuant to
Clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics.

Identification of the Complainant

As to the question of identification of the complainant, the Council
considers that, had the segment permitted an identified individual to be harshly
criticized by an apparent member of her family, this might have offended certain privacy
principles which underlie the principle of “full, fair and proper presentation of …
opinion [and] comment” provided in the third paragraph of Clause 6 of the CAB Code
of Ethics
. The Council does not consider it necessary, however, to deal with this
particular issue here as the segment complained of was purged of all identifying elements
by the broadcaster prior to airing. To the extent that the complainant considered herself
“identified” or targeted by her nephew’s comments, it would only, in
effect, have occurred within the context of her family and friends and not in the broad
context of the broadcaster’s audience.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In addition to assessing the relevance of the Codes to the complaint,
the CBSC always assesses the responsiveness of the broadcaster to the substance of
the complaint. In this case, the Council considers that the broadcaster’s response
addressed fully and fairly all the issues raised by the complainant. Consequently, the
broadcaster has not breached the Council’s standard of responsiveness. Nothing more
is required.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian
Broadcast Standards Council. It may be reported, announced or read by the station against
which the complaint had originally been made; however, in the case of a favourable
decision, the station is under no obligation to announce the result.